Who Is In Charge

Plan would free P-20 spending from TABOR

An education advocacy group and a veteran legislator Wednesday proposed a solution to what they see as severe underfunding of education – exempting such spending from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Education funding news conference March 24, 2010
Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, (at microphone) helped unveil a new education funding plan at the Capitol on March 24, 2010. In background from left are state Reps. Judy Solano and Max Tyler, Lisa Weil of Great Education Colorado and Rep. Mike Merrifield.

A resolution proposing that change is expected to be introduced in the legislature this week by Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Arvada, and Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora. If approved by 44 representatives and 24 senators – a high hurdle – the measure would go on the November ballot.

Passage would mean lawmakers could raise taxes and other revenue without asking voter approval for those new levies, if the new funds were earmarked for education spending, from preschool to university.

Regardless of its ultimate fate, the proposal sets up an interesting discussion in a legislative session that’s been forced to make deep education cuts and has less than 50 days to run.

The idea is being pushed by Great Futures Colorado, a coalition organized by Great Education Colorado, a group that long has advocated for improved school support.

Great Futures includes the Colorado PTA, Associated Students of Colorado, the Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, Padres Unidos and a variety of smaller groups.

Like any political movement, the ballot-measure effort has an acronym – DECIDE. (That stands for Decide: “Educations Cuts or Invest in our Democracy and Economy.”)

“This is a crisis.” Colorado “may be heading into something of a lost decade” for schools, said Lisa Weil, Great Education policy director.

“We’re at the end; we can’t cut any more,” said an emotional Kristi Hargrove of Gunnison, a Great Education and PTA board member who identified herself as a Republican.

The proposal comes in the middle of a legislative session that is seeing unprecedented cuts in state support of K-12 education. Lawmakers already have sliced $130 million from current, 2009-10 spending. House Bill 10-1369, the proposed 2010-11 school finance bill that’s up for Senate committee consideration Thursday, would cut state school support next year to $5.4 billion. That’s $260 million less than actual state support in the current budget. The trim may go deeper before lawmakers are finished.

Compared to actual 2009-10 spending, the proposed cut is about 6 percent. When compared to what funding would have been under the full terms of Amendment 23, the reduction is more than 8 percent.

Budgets for state colleges and universities are being held stable only with federal stimulus money and 9 percent tuition increases, and those budgets face significant cuts in 2011-12 after the stimulus disappears.

Proposal faces stiff challenges

Despite lawmaker concern about those cuts, approval of Benefield’s resolution faces tough challenges. A referred constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds vote in each House – 44 representatives and 24 senators. Democrats hold majorities of 37 in the House and 21 in the Senate. Most Republicans are adamant opponents of tax increases and fierce defenders of TABOR, and many favor greater school choice and even vouchers as ways to deal with school funding.

(In 2008, even Andrew Romanoff, the popular Denver Democrat who then was House speaker, couldn’t gather sufficient support for a different school-funding plan, House Concurrent Resolutio 08-1014. Romanoff and supporters ultimately put the measure, called the Savings Account for Education, on the ballot by citizen petition, but it was defeated that November.)

“I can’t sit back and do nothing,” said Benefield when asked about the odds of passing her measure. “Let’s start the conversation.” She said her first move would be to approach the eight Republican representatives who voted no on HB 10-1369 Monday and seek their support for the resolution.

If the measure does make it to the ballot it would face other challenges. The high-profile races for U.S. senator and governor will draw a big share of attention and contributions. Many voters are still nervous about the economy, and some small-government groups and voters have been energized by the health care debate in Washington. And, some good-government groups may be more interested in fighting three ballot measures that would severely limit state and local government spending and borrowing.

Weil acknowledged that her coalition hasn’t yet worked on organizing or fundraising for a possible fall campaign.

The successful statewide fiscal measure Referendum C passed in 2005 with the broad-based and well-financed backing of business, civic groups and both parties, including Republican Bill Owens, governor at the time. (Ref C was a five-year TABOR “timeout” that allowed the state to keep revenue that otherwise would have had to be refunded. Its pending expiration has increased anxiety about funding education and other state programs.)

Benefield said she hasn’t yet thought through how interest groups that support human services, environmental causes, public safety and transportation improvements would react to a measure that seems to favor education.

Weil’s comments indirectly acknowledged the difficulties. “We’re going to give this a go…We just want to start the debate,” she said, also using the phrase “whenever it goes to the voters.”

Key interests missing from event

Notable for their absence at Wednesday’s news conference were representatives of the “Three Cs” (the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives), Democratic legislative officers, business leaders or higher education executives.

Weil said the Great Futures effort only got rolling in January and that the group felt it needed to move before the legislative session progressed any further. She said she’s talking with business groups and others about the plan.

Representatives of the mainline education interests were nuanced in their reactions.

“It’s a creative proposal; I would applaud their effort,” said Jane Urschel, deputy executive director of the school boards association. She also noted that the plan doesn’t address Colorado’s broader problem of conflicting constitutional provisions.

Asked about the resolution’s chances, Urschel said, “It might be a little late in the session to get people on board. [But] I can’t say that it wouldn’t happen.”

Bruce Caughey of CASE said, “They’re forcing the right conversation, and it’s timely” give K-12 budget cuts.

“We really haven’t looked at as an organization, but the ideas are consistent with what we’ve been thinking.”

Like many Front Range school districts, the CEA took a snow day Wednesday, and a spokesperson couldn’t be reached for comment.

The Three Cs belong a group named Believe in a Better Colorado that has been advocating for a broader fiscal fix, as are a number of other groups, including business and civic organizations. A measure pending in the legislature, Senate Concurrent Resolution 10-001, would ask voters to create a special commission with power to recommend comprehensive changes to constitutional provisions governing finance.

Amendment 23 no longer the answer

Since 2000 Colorado school funding has been governed by Amendment 23. It requires annual state support of schools to be calculated based on enrollment growth and the Denver-Boulder rate of inflation. It also requires a 1 percent annual “bonus” increase on top of that, although that provision expires after the 2010-11 budget year.

A23 supporters hoped it would be a mechanism to return school funding to the levels of the 1980s and would provide a floor above which school spending could rise. Instead, the legislature, its options restricted because K-12 spending takes up so much of the state general fund, has tended to use it as a ceiling in order to have money available for other state programs.

The A23 formula has generated increased school spending every year until now, when state revenues have become so tight (and inflation has shrunk) that the state can’t afford to fund schools under interpretation of A23 that’s been used in the past. Up to now the formula has been applied to all state school support.

The administration of Gov. Bill Ritter and many legislators now subscribe to an interpretation that A23 applies just to base per-pupil support and not to the so-called “factors,” additional money that is used to tailor aid to individual districts based on cost of living, percentages of at-risk students and other factors.

School funding also is at issue in a lawsuit pending in Denver District Court. The case of Lobato v. State argues that the state constitutional requirement for “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” creates a “substantive” right to which “procedural amendments” such as TABOR “must yield.”

A court ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could have substantial financial impacts for education, but a final decision likely is years in the future.

Do your homework


Boundary lines of proposed South Loop high school drive wedge between communities

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke
About 30 speakers weighed in on a boundary proposal for a new South Loop high school at a public meeting at IIT.

The parent, wearing an “I Love NTA” T-shirt, said it loudly and directly toward the end of the public comment section Thursday night. “It sickens me to be here today and see so many people fighting for scraps,” said Kawana Hebron, in a public meeting on the boundaries for a proposed South Loop high school on the current site of National Teachers Academy. “Every community on this map is fighting for scraps.”

The 1,200-student high school, slated to open for the 2019-2020 school year near the corner of Cermak Road and State Street, has become a wedge issue dividing communities and races on the Near South Side.

Supporters of NTA, which is a 82 percent black elementary school, say pressure from wealthy white and Chinese families is leading the district to shutter its exceptional 1-plus rated program. A lawsuit filed in Circuit Court of Cook County in June by parents and supporters contends the decision violates the Illinois Civil Rights Code. 

But residents of Chinatown and the condo-and-crane laden South Loop have lobbied for an open-enrollment high school for years and that the district is running out of places to put one.

“I worry for my younger brother,” said a 15-year-old who lives between Chinatown and Bridgeport and travels north to go to the highly selective Jones College Prep. She said that too many students compete for too few seats in the nail-biting process to get into a selective enrollment high school. Plus, she worries about the safety, and environment, of the schools near her home. “We want something close, but good.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Chicago Public Schools
The “general attendance” boundary for the proposed South Loop high school is outlined in blue. The neighborhoods outlined in red would receive “preference,” but they would not be guaranteed seats.

One by one, residents of Chinatown or nearby spoke in favor of the high school at the meeting in Hermann Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology. They described their long drives, their fearfulness of dropping off children in schools with few, if any, Chinese students, and their concerns about truancy and poor academics at some neighboring open-enrollment high schools.

But their comments were sandwiched by dissenting views. A member of South Loop Elementary’s Local School Council argued that Chicago Public Schools has not established a clear process when it comes to shuttering an elementary and spending $10 million to replace it with a high school. “CPS scheduled this meeting at the same time as a capital budget meeting,” she complained.

She was followed by another South Loop parent who expressed concerns about potential overcrowding, the limited $10 million budget for the conversion, and the genesis of the project. “It’s a terrible way to start a new high school – on the ashes of a good elementary school,” the parent said.

The most persistent critique Thursday night was not about the decision to close NTA, but, rather, of the boundary line that would determine who gets guaranteed access and who doesn’t. The GAP, a diverse middle-class neighborhood bordered by 31st on the north, 35th on the South, King Drive to the east and LaSalle Street to the west, sits just outside the proposed boundary. A parade of GAP residents said they’ve been waiting for decades for a good option for their children but have been locked out in this iteration of the map. Children who live in the GAP would have “preference” status but would not be guaranteed access to seats.

“By not including our children into the guaranteed access high school boundaries – they are being excluded from high-quality options,” said Claudia Silva-Hernandez, the mother of two children, ages 5 and 7. “Our children deserve the peace of mind of a guaranteed-access option just like the children of South Loop, Chinatown, and Bridgeport.”

Leonard E. McGee, the president of the GAP Community Organization, said that tens of millions in tax-increment financing dollars – that is, money that the city collects on top of property tax revenues that is intended for economic development in places that need it most – originated from the neighborhood in the 1980s and went to help fund the construction of NTA. But not many of the area’s students got seats there.

Asked how he felt about the high school pitting community groups against each other, he paused. “If we’re all fighting for scraps, it must be a good scrap we’re fighting for.”

The meeting was run by Herald “Chip” Johnson, chief officer of CPS’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. He said that detailed notes from the meeting will be handed over to the office of CEO Janice Jackson. She will make a final recommendation to the Board of Education, which will put the plan up for a vote.

budget season

New budget gives CPS CEO Janice Jackson opportunity to play offense

PHOTO: Elaine Chen
Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson announced the district's $1 billion capital plan at Lázaro Cardenas Elementary School in Little Village.

Running Chicago’s schools might be the toughest tour of duty in town for a public sector CEO. There have been eight chiefs in a decade – to be fair, two were interims – who have wrangled with mounting debt, aging buildings, and high percentages of students who live in poverty.

Then there’ve been recurring scandals, corruption, and ethics violations. Since she was officially named to the top job in January, CEO Janice Jackson has had to clean up a series of her predecessors’ lapses, from a special education crisis that revealed families were counseled out of services to a sexual abuse investigation that spotlighted a decade of system failures at every level to protect students.

But with budget season underway, the former principal finally gets the chance to go on the offensive. The first operations budget of her tenure is a $5.98 billion plan that contains some good news for a change: 5 percent more money, courtesy of the state revamp of the school funding formula and a bump from local tax revenues. CPS plans to funnel $60 million more to schools than it did last school year, for a total of $3.1 billion. Put another way, it plans to spend $4,397 per student as a base rate — a 2 percent increase from the year prior.

CPS’ total budget comes out to $7.58 billion once you factor in long-term debt and an ambitious $1 billion capital plan that is the focus of a trio of public hearings Thursday night. When it comes to debt, the district owes $8.2 billion as of June 30, or nearly $3,000 per every Chicago resident.

“The district, without a doubt, is on firmer footing than it was 18 months ago, but they’re not out of woods yet,” said Bobby Otter, budget director for the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. “When you look at the overall picture (the $7.58 budget), they’re still running a deficit. This is now the seventh year in a row they are running a deficit, and the amount of debt the district has, combined with the lack of reserves, leaves them with little flexibility.”

Earlier this week, standing in front of an audience of executives at a City Club of Chicago luncheon, Jackson acknowledged that it had been an “eventful” seven months and said she was ready to focus on strategies for moving the district forward. “I won’t be waiting for next shoe to drop or wasting time and resources waiting for next problem. I want to design a system to educate and protect children.”

“I’m not in crisis mode,” she added.

Here’s what that looks like in her first year when you just consider the numbers. The biggest line items of any operating budget are salaries, benefits and pensions: Taken all together, they consume 66 percent of CPS’ planned spending for the 2018-2019 school year. Rounding out much of the rest are contracts with vendors ($542.6 million, or 9 percent), such as the controversial janitorial deals with Aramark and SodexoMAGIC; charter expenditures ($749 million, or 13 percent); and spending on transportation, textbooks, equipment, and the like (12 percent).

A closer look at how some of those items are allocated offers a window into Jackson’s vision. The Board of Education is scheduled to vote on the plan July 25.

Investing in choice

Earlier this month, the district announced a nearly $1 billion capital plan, funded by bonds, that would support new schools, technology upgrades, and annexes at some of the district’s most popular campuses. The operating budget, meanwhile, accounts for the people and programs driving those projects. It proposes nearly doubling the staff, from 10 to 17, in the office that manages charters, contract programs, and the creation of new schools. It reestablishes a chief portfolio officer who reports directly to the CEO. And it adds expands access to International Baccalaureate programs and Early College STEM offerings. In a letter at the beginning of the 2019 Budget Book, Jackson said such expansions “move the district closer to our goal of having 50 percent of students earn at least one college or career credential before graduating high school.” 

Advocating for students

The budget seeds at least two new departments: a four-person Office of Equity charged with diversifying the teacher pipeline, among other roles, and a 20-person Title IX office that would investigate student abuse cases, including claims of student-on-student harassment.

Leaning into high schools

Fitting for a budget designed by a former high school principal – Jackson was running a high school before age 30 – the plan leans in to high schools, establishing $2 million to fund four new networks to oversee them. (That brings the total number of networks to 17; networks are mini-administrative departments that track school progress, assist with budgeting, and ensure policy and procedures are followed.) And it earmarks $75 million across three years for new science labs at neighborhood high schools. What’s more, it supports 10 additional career counselors to help campuses wrestle with a graduation mandate – set forth by Mayor Rahm Emanuel – that seniors have a post-secondary plan to graduate starting with the Class of 2020.

Throwing a lifeline to small schools

The budget also sets forth a $10 million “Small Schools Fund” to help schools with low enrollment retain teachers and offer after-school programs. It also earmarks an additional $5 million to help schools facing precipitous changes in enrollment, which can in turn lead to dramatic budget drops.   

Supporting modest staff increases

After a round of layoffs were announced in June, the budget plan adds at least 200 teachers. But the district would not provide a clear accounting of whom to Chalkbeat by publication time. Earlier this week, it announced plans to fund additional school social workers (160) and special education case managers (94).

The district plans to add positions for the upcoming 2018-2019 year.

As Chicago Teachers Union organizer and Cook County Commissioner candidate Brandon Johnson pointed out in an impromptu press conference earlier this week in front of district HQ, the budget is still “woefully short” on school psychologists, nurses, and counselors. And it doesn’t address the calls from parents to restore librarians and instructors in such subjects as art, music, physical education — positions that have experienced dramatic cuts since 2011. “What is proposed today still leaves us short of when (Mayor Emanuel) took office,” Johnson said. “The needs of our students must be met.”

Principal Elias Estrada, who oversees two North Side schools, Alcott Elementary and Alcott High School, said he was still figuring out how the additional staffing would work. He’s getting another social worker – but he oversees two campuses that sit three miles apart, so he figures he’ll have to divide the person’s time between campuses. Estrada asked the board at Monday’s budget hearing to help him understand the criteria it uses to determine which schools get extra staff or additional programs, like IB. “I need a counselor, a clerk, and an assistant principal,” he said; currently those positions also are shared between the elementary and the high school.

After the meeting, he said that schools might have gotten slightly bigger budgets this year, but the increase was consumed by rising salaries and he wasn’t able to add any positions. What’s more, his building needs repairs, but it didn’t get picked for any of the facilities upgrades in the $1 billion capital plan that accompanied the budget.

“What is the process?” he asked. “The need is everywhere.”

At two public hearings on Monday, fewer than a dozen speakers signed up to ask questions of the board, central office administrators, or Jackson.

To see if your school is getting one of the newly announced positions or any funding from the capital plan, type it in the search box below.